WASHINGTON -- I had an interesting discussion with a newspaper columnist the other day. He was remarking on my commentary comparing the 90th Congress when I came to Washington with the 109th Congress that just began its business. The columnist said the incoming Senators can't compare with those greats who were key players in both parties in 1967. In fact, he pointed to articles which are being written about the seven new conservatives who have just taken Senate seats representing Florida, Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Oklahoma and South Dakota. He said when we look back at them we will judge them to be pygmies.
I was rather shocked at this columnist's view as he is one of the most knowledgeable observers of politics in the nation. I allowed as how I hold out hope for at least a couple of these new Senators.
He refused to back down. "Pygmies. That is what we'll think of them," he said.
I can't agree, at least not at this point, and I count myself as a student of the Senate. Long before I made it to Washington as a Senate aide, I read the daily Congressional Record for years and I saw who was for real and who was not. Indeed, in all my years of reading the Record and then observing the Senate up close as a Senate aide I never ever saw Senator Quentin Burdick (D-N.D.) make a speech. When I arrived in Washington and asked about him, I was told that other Senators on the Democratic side covered for him. When he was supposed to handle a bill on the floor, others would be there instead. He retired after several Senate terms and I don't believe he ever made a speech.
Senator Gordon Allott of Colorado used to tell me, "There are two types of senators: Those you have heard of and those who do all the work." He was right. There were showcase senators who were constantly running to the radio-TV gallery, and then there were highly effective senators who hardly ever got coverage.
Senator Jack Miller of Iowa comes to mind. He was one of the more able senators I have ever observed. Yet even in Iowa his name identification was quite low. Another very effective Senator was Senator Wallace Bennett of Utah. He was the father of current Senator Bob Bennett of Utah. He was an expert on banking issues and was highly regarded in the Senate, yet he got almost no national coverage.
Will the current crop live up to the likes of Senators Carl Curtis of Nebraska, Gordon Allott of Colorado, Bob Griffin of Michigan and Karl Mundt of South Dakota? These were men who did their own work. Sure. They had staff aides. I was one of them. But they knew their subjects inside and out.
Carl Curtis was an expert on finance issues. He understood Social Security and what would become of it long before anyone else began to put the unpleasant pieces together. Curtis could cite chapter and verse about tax and regulation issues and he could explain it in such plain English it was amazing.
Gordon Allott, long an expert on reclamation projects and other issues having to do with the Interior Department, became an expert on urban mass transit during his final term in office. Indeed, because he was interested in the subject and the Chairman of Transportation Appropriations, Senator John Stennis (D-Miss.), was not, Stennis allowed Allott great leeway in running the Committee, even permitting him to hold hearings in 1968 which no Republican had done since the GOP lost control of the Senate in 1954.
Bob Griffin of Michigan was a true expert on labor law. The Landrum-Griffin Labor Reform Act bears his name. It was passed in 1960 during President Eisenhower's last year in office. Ike went on television and rallied the country to support it. Despite a Congress which was heavily Democratic and was considered owned by the unions, this tough labor bill was overwhelmingly approved by both Houses of Congress. Griffin is perhaps most famous for his winning effort to prevent Abe Fortas from becoming Chief Justice of the United States.
Karl Mundt became an expert on pornography. Before he was stricken with a terrible stroke which disabled him midway though his last term in office he was on the verge of helping to revise all of our laws on porn. Indeed, to the extent that there are any controls on porn at all we can thank Mundt.
I dare say none of these senators would be remembered today. Yet they were very able people and needed no Senate aides to whisper in their ears.
WHAT ABOUT THE NEW crop just elected? I have the most hope for Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma who took the seat of retiring Senator Don Nickles. In the House, Coburn was fearless in trying to curb federal spending, so much so that he was hated by the leadership on both sides of the aisle. Coburn has told colleagues that since his election he has been studying the Senate rule book. He said he hopes to understand as much about the rules as Senator Robert C. Byrd (D-W.V.).
Senate Republicans have not had an expert on the rules since Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina retired in 2002. Helms in recent years didn't use the rules much. But back when he and the late Senator Jim Allen of Alabama would go at it the Senate would sometimes be tied up for weeks at a time.
I think Coburn has the potential to be another Allen or Helms. He beat back cancer twice. The entire GOP establishment backed his opponents in the GOP primary. In the general election he defeated Oklahoma Congressman Brad Carson, absolutely the best candidate the Democrats could offer.
I think Senator John Thune of South Dakota also has potential. He had his first election stolen from him and he graciously conceded. Later Thune unseated Minority Leader Tom Daschle. Had Thune defeated Senator Tim Johnson no one would have noticed because that was in 2002, when with the help of Jim Talent of Missouri, Norm Coleman of Minnesota and Saxbe Chambliss of Georgia, Republicans regained control of the United States Senate.
If Thune had been added to the list he would have been just an additional vote. To defeat Daschle Thune had to be tougher. He became tougher and ran what friends told me was a near perfect campaign that pounded Daschle on social issues. Thune defeating the Minority Leader, the first time a leader of either party was defeated since 1952, was an election heard around the world. He has some stature now. Hopefully he will make use of it.
Additionally, there is Senator David Vitter of Louisiana. He proved to be a tough no-compromise Member of the House. He ran an extraordinary campaign and defeated two well-financed Democrats to win without a runoff, something even the GOP Senatorial Campaign Committee thought could not be done.
Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina also ran a tough campaign and has potential.
Will we think of them as pygmies looking back a few years from now? That is, of course, up to them. Right now I'm willing to bet, at least with a few of them, my columnist friend will be proven wrong.
Paul M. Weyrich is chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.